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Launch startup at UQ

What's it really like to launch a startup at UQ?

Uni life
Published 5 Aug, 2022  ·  8-minute read

At The University of Queensland, we’re continuously impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit and startup ideas that come out of our UQ Ventures community.

We asked Tom Bizzell, a Bachelor of Commerce / Bachelor of Laws (Honours) student and UQ’s Chief Student Entrepreneur, and Lara Berge, a Bachelor of Advanced Business (Honours) student and a UQ Ventures Ambassador, to discuss their own Ventures experiences.

What’s the startup that you launched at UQ?

Tom: The startup I cofounded with Jack Anderson is called WakeShare, and it’s all about overcoming hurdles to platooning in the trucking industry. (Platooning is the practice of travelling in convoy to get fuel efficiency benefits from the drag reduction, similar to how a cyclist in a race would ride behind other cyclists in front.)

We recognised that for semi-autonomous trucks to benefit from platooning, they would have to platoon with competitors and that there were a couple of hurdles to this.

  • First of all, ensuring that there was a mutual benefit between the truck in front and the truck behind if they were two different companies because, of course, only the truck behind is getting a fuel efficiency benefit.
  • The second hurdle being the coordination of it. We recognised that the scheduling data the truck companies would have to share in order to know when and where they would have a platooning opportunity would be commercially sensitive, because it's data from which you can derive things like clientele.

And so we set about overcoming both of those hurdles with a software platform that helped coordinate that platooning practice throughout the industry.

Lara: Hirely was a ‘cloud-based wardrobe’ platform aimed towards young professional women based on a subscription business model.

By providing a platform in which young women could rent outfits to wear for a special event, the business combatted the textile waste epidemic by providing this as an alternative to the consumeristic fast-fashion cycle – the cycle being that young women would buy a fast fashion outfit for an event, wear it once, get photos in it for socials, and never wear it again. The garments would then be added to our excessive textile disposal collection.

Tom Bizzell and Lara Berge

How did you first hear about UQ Ventures?

Lara: I first heard about UQ Ventures in the second semester of my first year at UQ through a friend who had completed the Validate (formerly Startup Academy) program. He knew I was interested in entrepreneurship and wanted to take my current business, which I had started in my second-last year of high school, to the next level.

Tom: I found out about UQ Ventures while I was still in high school. UQ Ventures runs a high school program where it goes out and takes students through the design thinking process and other such educational modules.

Which Ventures programs have you participated in?

Tom: I've participated in two Ventures programs so far. First of all was the one in high school. The second one I participated in was the Ventures Curiosity program. It’s a program for UQ students that takes them through some of the fundamental ideas and frameworks around design thinking, prototyping and validating different business ideas that students might have. And it exposes them to entrepreneurship and how their degree of study might allow them to pursue that sort of pathway.

Lara: I started by getting involved in the Curiosity program (previously IdeaHub), then Validate (previously Startup Academy) which I went on to win first prize in with my startup Hirely, where I pitched an extension of my current business Only Once Hire Boutique.

"The best thing I've gotten out of Ventures has been rich connections to others in the ecosystem. I've formed many fundamental relationships that have been pivotal in my career development." - Lara Berge

Were there any specific people within Ventures that helped or inspired you?

Lara: Tomas Piccinini and Ran Heimann were the two Startup Academy program facilitators in the cohort that I completed. They both played pivotal roles in developing my self-belief, pitching confidence, and connecting me with relevant startups, founders and advisers in the sustainable fashion field.

Tom: Certainly, Nimrod Klayman, the Head of Ventures at UQ. Beyond everything he’s done to make ventures such a valuable community and resource, he was the first person who, in my first semester of university, encouraged me to do a hackathon. This really set me on a whole new trajectory, because I figured out how much I love that style of problem solving and the teamwork involved – and that really got me interested in the technology industry and startups in general as well.

Which UQ facilities did you use while working on your startup idea?

Tom: The UQ facilities were really helpful when working on WakeShare. Jack and I would often hang out at the Idea Hub room in the Hawken Building, which is a space especially for students working on startup projects – we would meet there and do our work there.

When we were pitching our idea at different competitions and stuff, we would use some of the video recording studios at UQ, and we were fortunate enough to get some video-editing work done by some of the staff at UQ as well, which was very helpful and gave us a competitive edge.

Also, the community of academics at UQ was an incredibly valuable resource for us. We would send emails out and meet with different academics in relevant fields for what we were doing at WakeShare. Some of the insights we gained from those discussions really shaped our direction and helped us identify what we needed to focus on.

"The academics at UQ were particularly approachable. They would follow up with us after we had our meeting to hear about how we were going, to congratulate us for our different milestones as we progressed, and to give us further input when we required – it was super helpful."

"UQ Ventures provides this great culture in which students and academics at the forefront of research come together, working on ways to bring the latest ideas off campus and into the world." - Tom Bizzell

What has Ventures given you that you might not get from regular university studies?

Lara: The best thing I’ve gotten out of my involvement with Ventures has been the rich connections to others in the ecosystem – other Ventures staff members, students, founders, and mentors. I’ve formed many fundamental relationships that have been pivotal in my career development.

Do you still use the skills you learnt from Ventures today?

Tom: Yeah, definitely. Some of the skill sets that I learnt in Ventures included things like the design thinking methodology, different tools that you can use to prototype technology ideas, and then also the importance of, and different methodologies for, validating business ideas. I use those whenever I do a hackathon or even just through the process of working on WakeShare. It was very helpful.

Lara: I absolutely still use the skill sets I learnt during the Ventures programs, such as how to communicate my ideas effectively (learnt from pitching practice) and what green and red flags to look for when evaluating early-stage startups, which I do in my job as an Investment Analyst Intern at Sprint Venture Capital. The greatest thing above the skill set that I’ve gotten from the Ventures programs, though, are the connections that I made.

What makes the UQ Ventures community unique?

Tom: The Ventures community at UQ is a pretty special and unique community. They’re a community of staff, academic and students.

I think what’s special about it is just how ambitious and how collaborative this community is. So, we have student societies like the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Society, who organise things like trips over to Singapore to engage in the innovation ecosystems there. Then we have social events where we pitch different business ideas at the Red Room in the evening. And we have the Ventures programs, of course, which bring together and equip students with the different toolkits that they'll need to do interesting things.

And I think what that all leads to is this culture where students have this great collaboration with academics and the other powerhouses of innovation at the university, so that they can bring things out of just the university and into the world and create cool products and services.

What was it like to win the UQ Startup Academy?

Lara Berge Ventures

Lara: This was a real ‘sliding doors’ moment for me. Pitching in front of judges and an audience was not a comfortable thing for me in my second year of uni. Two years on, I can say that this has definitely changed, largely due to this experience with Startup Academy. It connected me with so many interesting people and improved my confidence immensely.

What was it like to win the Ericsson Innovation Award?

Tom Bizzell Ventures

Tom: To win the Ericsson Innovation Award was really valuable for WakeShare. It was a massive legitimisation of what we were trying to do. And that gave us the chance to pick the brains of a number of interesting people we may not have been able to otherwise.

What motivates you as a young entrepreneur?

Tom: Coming into university at this time in which innovation is at such a massive acceleration, and being able to decide where to direct my career, it's exciting to know that the Australian technology industry is really still in its nascence, in this exciting period where there’s so much to be done. And I think one thing that motivates me is wanting to be part of that, wanting to be able to help some of these innovations unlock their impact on society.

Lara: The independence, creativity and autonomy associated with entrepreneurship has always and will continue to draw me to the field.

What’s next for you after you graduate?

Lara: After graduation next year, I have three core career hypotheses that I’m currently investigating:

  1. One is working as an analyst for a venture capital firm that focuses on early-stage startup investments in health-tech and e-commerce. I’m lucky enough to be exploring this in my current role as an intern at Sprint.
  2. The second is a more traditional career pathway that graduates of my degree are known for pursuing, which is management consultancy. I’m still working out where I may fit in best here. I’m excited to find out more during my internship in the human resource advisory team at KPMG Brisbane later this year.
  3. The third is working in product management for an impact-driven tech company.

Tom: So, I’ve still got 2 and a half years left at university – it's a long degree. I’m still not sure of the direction I’ll go afterwards but I’m working on figuring that out. The opportunity to spend time trying a diversity of things and, in doing so, learning more about the kind of work that fulfills me is one of the greatest I’ve had at university.

I’ve got a long degree, and one thing I love about that is the chance it gives me to not only make myself employable during that time, but also to get a diversity of experience so that I can figure out the reason for which I want to be employable – what direction I want to go.

No matter what your big ideas are, UQ has the teachers and facilities to help you develop and realise them. Keep riding this inspiration wave by reading more of Lara’s story or Tom’s story.

 Find your program to own the unknown

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